The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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In The Merchant of Venice, would a first-time audience recognize Nerissa and Portia in disguise?

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Yes, the audience, even if seeing the play for the first time, knows that it is Portia and Nerissa entering the courtroom disguised as men. We know this because Portia reveals her plan to disguise herself as a man to Nerissa in Act 3. Portia says that she will carry a dagger:

And speak between the change of man and boy
With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride, and speak of frays ...
Portia, in other words, says she will talk like a teenaged boy, walk with a manly stride, and speak, as a man would, of fighting. She says she knows many "raw tricks" about bragging like a man, showing she has been a keen observer of male behavior. Nerissa then asks:
Why, shall we turn to men?
This is an example of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something characters in a play do not. The audience recognizes when the lawyer and clerk enter the courtroom that they are Portia and Nerissa, but none of the men in the court have any idea of what is going on.
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Yes, the audience would know that Nerissa and Portia are men because Act 3 Scene 4 shows the two women planning to dress and behave as men to help Bassanio help his friend. In fact, they brag how easy it will be for them to pass as men, Portia saying "When we are both accoutred like young men / I'll prove the prettier fellow of the two, / And wear my dagger with the braver grace . . . and turn two mincing steps / Into a manly stride . . . .I have within my mind / a thousand raw ricks of these bragging jacks, Which I will practise" (65-77). In addition, this would not be difficult for the audience to follow, because the convention was that all actors were men. So the actual situation is two men dressed like women then dressing like men and pretending to be men!

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In The Merchant of Venice, if Portia and Nerissa come in disguise, how does the audience recognize them?

Also, in Act III, scene iv, we hear Portia describing her plan to Nerissa for them to go see their husbands in disguise, as well as her command to her servant, Balthasar, to fetch "notes and garments" from Doctor Bellario - thus we are given a clue that she will be disguising herself as a learned doctor.  So, although the audience will see these two girls disguised as men, they will know ahead of time to expect to see them - and they would not be so well disguised as to look completely different from their original selves.  That is part of the stage - the audience suspends their disbelief for a time and is in on the hoax.

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